Multi-Company Training - Part I

As stated in my previous articles concerning multi-company training, I am of the opinion that each individual firefighter should participate in at least two multi-company training exercises each year. For the purpose of learning new or revised procedures, as well as maintaining consistency of existing procedures. Whether you're a volunteer firefighter, or a career firefighter, with few exceptions, your organization will at times depend upon the assistance of mutual aid fire departments.

Most fire departments have a pre-arranged agreement with other departments concerning mutual aid. Such agreements have established procedures as to how the mutual aid companies will be activated, and general guidelines concerning operations. Along with these agreements, its a great idea to maintain a listing of your mutual aid fire department's equipment, staffing of apparatus, and any specialized operations a particular fire department may offer, such as Haz/Mat, or water rescue.

Its been my experience that once the mutual aid agreements are established, the firefighters generally meet upon the occasion of a working incident, whether it be a large fire or a specialized incident. At the scene of an emergency, is not the time for officers and firefighters to get to know each other, learn how the "other guys" do it and discover incompatible equipment!" I have experienced two forms of mutual aid agreements:

  • One is when the chief officer's shake each others hands and agree to send help when called upon. They have a fair understanding of each others expectations, and the type of equipment to expect to arrive to assist at an incident. Usually followed by a written agreement drafted by the city/county attorney. Then the announcement is made to the companies that the agreement is official, and the firefighter's wait for the incident to occur which requires mutual aid assistance.

  • The second type of mutual aid agreement includes the details of the example above, however it further incorporates having the firefighter's involved in the agreement to train together. This is by far the most advantageous approach, but in most cases, utilized the least.

I must be somewhat reserved when sharing this sad but "true" story with you (I still have to live and work here). A major incident occurred in a large Southern city which required all of the department's resources. The call went out for the mutual aid companies to come to their aid by staffing the fire stations for the purpose of providing coverage. The various departments responding to the call for assistance met at a central location, and responded to a fire station where the individual engines, and truck companies could be further assigned to one of the cities fire stations. There was a pre-arranged plan involving the different agencies which was well organized. However, some major problems became very clear when the companies arrived at the fire station!

When they arrived with a convoy of eight engines and three truck companies, there was no one at the fire station to offer direction. So, while they waited, a small group of firefighter's notice a hydrant across the street and quickly walked over to investigate. Soon, the small congregation of firefighter's began to swell into a multitude standing and offering opinions as to what best to do...because there they were with all this fire fighting equipment, and not one had a hydrant wrench that would operate the hydrant, which required a specially designed wrench!

In due time, one of the requesting departments' truck companies arrived, and the first question the captain asked as he climbed down from the cab was, "Do you have wrenches that will operate this type of hydrant?" The captain obtained a hydrant wrench, and they all went back across the street to have a quick class in opening a hydrant.

Of course this was the first time such an incident of this kind had occurred...out of town companies not being able to connect into the requesting department's hydrant's...right! Just study a few historical fires, your search will not have to go back to many years. These type of incident's continue to repeat themselves in our business!

When planning mutli-company training among mutual aid companies, plan far in advance. Otherwise, one of your engineer's will be holding a 5" supply line with a storz-type coupling laid out by a mutual aid engine and considering how to connect it to one of the 2-1/2" intakes before the hydrant is charged! (I wish I could tell you that this was not a true story, but at least it occurred while training; it could have just as easily occurred during an actual incident.)

Consider the following factors:

  • The operational procedures of the mutual aid company

  • The type of equipment carried on the apparatus

  • Compatible hose connections. If not, all firefighter's should be trained in the use of the appropriate adapters.

  • Accountably Systems (Utilized at all incidents - Utilized during all training exercises)

  • Communications (Having a common channel is good, except on large incidents, where multiple channels are required for directing separate sectors. Then, the individual channels of the mutual aid companies become advantageous, and coordination of activities is accomplished by having a command officer from each agency in the command post directing a sector utilizing their channel.

  • Hose lays, and signaling for the lines to be charged

  • Pump pressures (hand lines, master streams, relay pumping)

  • Terminology (we have a general firefighter's jargon, and then each department has its own refined jargon)

  • Command procedures (sectoring methodology and terminology)

The above factors represents some general concerns when approaching operating with mutual aid companies. There are many more which will be exclusive to the individual departments.

Once the mutual aid agreement has been established, the next phase should be for the chief officers to meet and discuss their general operating procedures and equipment. One approach might be to list the individual categories on a board, whereby the differences, as well as the commonalties might be clearly identified, i.e., size of supply hose (3" or 5"). Then the chief officers must identify and establish plans in which to integrate the mutual aid companies into a functional team, and establish a time period in which to have the companies train together.

Once the chief officers have identified solutions to some of the differences, then the training officers are briefed and then the training officers should meet and discuss the best methodology and schedule which will best accomplish a productive multi-company training exercise.

Summary: Mutual aid companies should train together and not wait until an incident occurs to attempt to integrate the participating departments into a functional team. There will also be some differences in equipment and procedures which are best identified in meetings, solutions identified to overcome these differences, then conduct multi-company training; where additional differences in equipment and procedures will further be discovered. However, discovering these challenges during meetings, and while conducting practical drills is where the problems should be discovered, not at an emergency incident when human life and property are at risk!

In next month's article we will continue our discussion of multi-company training. Specifically looking at developing trust and team spirit among mutual aid departments while conducting training.